Another Year, Another Weak Start for Pirates Attendance
Welcome to another installment of “Where are the fans?” As we have reported in Policy Briefs or Blogs since 2007, Pittsburgh Pirates’ attendance languishes among the lowest in the league. Since 2007, attendance has ranked 28th out of 30 teams. So far this season, attendance is still holding two spots above the worst level. Unless fireworks and special promotions over this summer boost attendance sharply from the current pace of 17,170 per game, the 2010 season will see only 1.4 million fans push through the turnstiles. In previous years, there has been a pickup after school is out and game attendance gradually moved up to lift the season total to around 1.6 million.
As of May 24 only the Cleveland Indians and Toronto Blue Jays are drawing fewer customers per game. Last year Pittsburgh outdrew Florida and Oakland and in 2008, the Pirates attendance surpassed only Kansas City and Florida.
No doubt the poor performance at the gate reflects to some extent the team’s on field performance. Seventeen consecutive losing seasons does not create a lot of fan excitement. Philadelphia meanwhile is packing their ballpark with a major league topping 45,114 fans per game and at that pace will post a full season attendance of over 3.6 million. Nothing like World Series appearances to boost attendance. To be sure, Philadelphia is a much larger market than Pittsburgh. But how does one explain the fact that St. Louis, a metro area about the size of Pittsburgh, regularly pulls in over 3 million fans each year and ranks consistently in the top four major league cities for attendance?
How truly ironic. One of the arguments used by those who pushed so hard to get a new ball park was that Three Rivers Stadium was not a good baseball venue and a new park was needed to boost team attendance and revenue. Since PNC Park opened, attendance has exceeded 2 million only during the first season of operation. And except for the 2005 and 2006 seasons when attendance was boosted by All Star game related ticket sales, attendance has not reached 1.8 million since the second year of PNC Park’s existence. For four of the years since 2002, attendance has been at 1.6 million or less. And it appears attendance will be no more than 1.6 million again in 2010.
During the 1990 through 1993 seasons at Three Rivers Stadium Pirates’ attendance averaged 1.9 million. And, during the last four years of play at Three Rivers Stadium, 1997 through 2000, attendance averaged 1.6 million. So it is safe to say that after ten years, PNC Park has not proved to be the answer to Pirates poor attendance. Maybe an apology to taxpayers who opposed using tax dollars to fund the park is in order.
Here’s where we impolitely say “told you so” to those who wielded raw political power to foist the new heavily subsidized ball park on us. Back during the debate over funding the new ball park, we pointed out that Pittsburgh was a small market team with little television revenue and did not have a history of being a great “baseball” town in the manner of St. Louis with its strong attendance record in the old Busch Stadium, a virtual twin of Three Rivers Stadium.
Thus, we argued that a new ball park in Pittsburgh-after the opening year curiosity-would not end the weak attendance or generate significant TV money. The team claimed the ball park would increase Pirates’ revenue and thereby enable the club to pay the higher salaries necessary to field a competitive team. The Pirates undoubtedly did enjoy some improvement in revenue from in-stadium sources such as luxury boxes and advertising. But the commitment to increase player salaries substantially and field a competitive team has not been honored.
The real tragedy of the new park arises from the bill of goods taxpayers were sold by politicians and civic leaders who were certain the corporate welfare involved in keeping the Pirates owners happy would pay enormous dividends for the City and region. Sad to report, the region experienced no net increases in private sector employment from the time PNC Park opened through the onset of the current recession. Meanwhile, the City has slumped into a deep financial crisis despite being granted significant new sources of tax revenue.
And the greatest chicanery of all? Notwithstanding politicians’ and sports writers’ warnings that the Pirates would move away if a new ball park was not built, there was no place to go capable of supporting a major league franchise. Washington, DC was not an option because of opposition by the Orioles. Only after the Montreal club collapsed financially did Major League Baseball overcome that obstacle. It was a despicable ruse.
In sum, taxpayers ended up being forced to pay a hefty majority of the cost to build a new ball park by politicians who were motivated by easily discredited arguments. Local public policy making can hardly get any worse, although there are several examples in the running. The North Shore Connector comes to mind. Learning from past mistakes does not appear to be a skill valued by very many government officials.